"You must not go back that way again" (Deuteronomy 17:16). This statement in Shof'tim is far more central to our religious worldview than we might realize. We, as Reform Jews, know that we can't keep doing something just because we have always done it, but it feels so difficult to continue questioning, advancing. All too often, we are tempted to choose something disagreeable simply because it is traditional, accepted, and mainstream and because it is hard to keep moving forward. Yes, we may be facing pain, boredom, a less than satisfactory life, but at least we know this pain and this boredom. We accept a shrunken life because of its familiarity. We survived the old way-why risk it all? But "You must not go back that way again" is both a profound gift and a central lesson offered by Moses to the Israelites.
When Freud put forth his theory of the "repetition compulsion," people were immediately attracted to the idea because it dramatizes the tragedies of their lives that they cannot overcome (Sigmund Freud, "Anxiety and Instinctual Life," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud [London: Hogarth Press, 1957-74], vol. 23, pp. 106-108). Of course, people would keep making the same mistakes, just as they frequently are attracted to the same sort of spouse who made their lives miserable in the past. They would complain about the bad parenting they suffered through and then adopt the same behavior, turning into their own parents. Sometimes, people may excuse their unwise choices, saying that they were responding to events that predate their becoming moral agents. But Judaism rejects that response. The Torah says no! God brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (my emphases), so you cannot blame your former enslavement for your present actions. In exchange for your freedom, you are now a responsible moral agent: "You must not go back that way again."
How seriously should we take this precept? Aren't we part of a long chain of tradition that we are meant to honor and to pass on to our children and that they will transmit to their children? And yet, we learn that the call to freedom, "You must not go back that way again," is part of that very same tradition. We must ask ourselves, what would remain if we overthrew what came before? This raises a further question: is the Torah the story of our freedom or the story of our tradition ("story" being both road map and imperative)?
The Torah is the story of our people that allows us to talk about the ineffable. As serious biblical scholars, we know that there are different contributions to the text at different times. For example, there are the J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomic), P (priestly), and R (redactive) traditions. But we also know that these stories have given us a way to think about our most urgent questions of meaning. Torah has given us the "native language of our soul" (source, Carol Ochs), and so we use it-but never uncritically.
The Torah must be seen as the story of our freedom. Freedom did not begin for us with the Exodus, but with accepting responsibility for our actions in Eden. Likewise, freedom did not begin and end with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). The flight from Egypt led to our liberation from the oppression of Pharaoh, but our people had already internalized the message that they were chattel. It took an entire generation of living in the wilderness, far from labels given by other people, to begin shedding the message of servitude and worthlessness and to recognize that we really are created b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). At this point in the narrative, where the Israelites face the death of their leader and the trial of battle, how tempting it would have been to fall back into helplessness, to "go back that way again."
The Exodus is not one event among many; it is the singular event that transformed the way all other events would be seen. The world after the Exodus was changed from the world before. Once we accepted the narrative of Exodus, we knew that events are meaningful, that we are in relationship with the Creator of the universe and along with this great privilege comes a great responsibility. Now every act would be judged as to how it was-or failed to be-in keeping with the laws of the covenant. At the critical moment when they were poised on the border of the Promised Land, the Israelites had to be reminded of what their story meant. Fiddler on the Roof notwithstanding, our story is not about tradition, for even the laws themselves could be turned into idols. Rather, it is about breaking free of all the old traditions, like the Egyptian death cult, the sacrifice of children, the lure of enslavement, and the paganism that surrounded them. As we ourselves stand on the boundary of our future brimming with change-the prospect of a new life for ourselves in a beckoning Promised Land-we must not fall back into victimhood. We must retain our freedom, our judgment, and our sense of responsibility for what we do (no more "mistakes were made" attitude).
And we are not without tools. We do have our story, and with that story we have our ways of interpreting it. We do not destroy what came before, but neither do we needlessly carry it along; we can take what is of value and build on it. Our tradition, in fact, buoys us as we make our way reading new meanings and practices into the laws that were given to our ancestors. Just as we say of God, "You renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:30), we renew our faith and our world by daily taking responsibility for the judgments and actions we make. "You must not go back that way again" can be read colloquially as "Don't live on reruns." The world is fresh and new, and it is open to our hopes, energy, and commitment.
Freedom is frightening-it feels so much safer to return to the less than satisfactory, but familiar, ways. But freedom is also exhilarating. After being tenderly nurtured in the wilderness, we grow in trust and are increasingly ready to fulfill our hopes and dreams. The future will not be like the past. Moses said the words, "You must not go back that way again"; they resonated in the hearts and minds of those who heard him, just as they resonate in ours.
Dr. Carol Ochs was formerly director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brandeis University and is the author of eight books.
This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ.